What Russia Fears in Asia

Despite its growing military and economic power, Russia doesn't see China as a threat. The potential chaos in Central Asia is another matter.

Developments in Central Asia and Pakistan are a major concern for Russia, but the growing military might of China isn’t really, at least according to Russian political and military officials I spoke with at a key conference in Moscow.

I probed numerous senior Russian officials at the off-the-record Defence and Security section meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club on China, and received what were in some ways some surprising responses. When considering China’s growing economic power and military potential, even many US defence analysts who don’t consider China a threat still see managing its rise as a challenge. Indeed, over the past two years, the Barack Obama administration has sought to strengthen defence cooperation with other Asian countries worried about China’s rise, including Japan and Vietnam. And, like previous US administrations, they’ve also called on Chinese policy makers to make their defence policies and programmes more transparent.

Russian leaders speaking in public, in contrast, almost always repeat the official view that Russia and China are strategic partners, and that rather than fear China’s rise, Moscow welcomes it as a stabilizing factor in Asia. And although one senior military officer I met with in Moscow insisted that the Russian defence community constantly monitors Chinese defence developments, and sees clear signs of improved Chinese capabilities, the country still doesn’t see China as a current or emerging threat.

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A senior Russian general confirmed that Russian defence leaders regularly discuss China with their US counterparts, but added that this was because Russian leaders are concerned that tensions between China and the United States could negatively affect the security of Asia in general, and Russia in particular.

Still, some Russian defence analysts at the conference were a little less sanguine over China’s rising military potential. For example, one told the sole Japanese participant, who had asked several questions about this issue, not to worry about the likely placement of the Mistral warship in the Russian Far East, since its main function would be to deter China, not fight Japan.

Indeed, the crash in Russian arms sales to China in the past few years has led many Western defence analysts to believe that Russia has essentially given up on the Chinese. In the past, Moscow could count on China buying various high-tech weapons systems from Russia’s military industrial complex. And, following the decision of Western governments to impose an arms embargo on China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, a ban that remains largely in force today, China emerged as one of the most reliable clients of Russian defence items. For almost two decades, China accounted for between one-fourth and one-half of Russia’s foreign military sales, with Beijing buying more military products from Russia than from all other countries combined. During the 1990s, the value of these purchases ranged up to $1 billion per year, while during the mid-2000s, this figure sometimes rose above $2 billion per annum.

But this has since changed markedly. Since 2005, China has stopped purchasing Russian warships or warplanes, and has ceased signing new multi-billion dollar arms sale contracts. For the most part, Russian suppliers have been fulfilling past contracts (such as delivering S-300 air defence missiles), modernizing previous deliveries, or supplying specialized technology, such as high-powered aircraft engines for fighter planes, where Russian manufactures retain a clear advantage. The director of Russia’s state-controlled arms export company, Rosoboronexport, has forecast that the value of Russian arms sold to China could decline to as little as 10 percent of the value of all Russian military exports in the coming years.

But the defence firm chief we had dinner with insisted that Russian firms still saw opportunities for additional lucrative arms sales to China. Although he recognized that Russia helped contribute to the improved quality of the Chinese defence industry through its license transfer of Su-27 technologies and other means, he still saw opportunities for profitable collaboration with the Chinese due to the recognition by many (if not all) members of the Chinese aerospace industry that China still needed to rely on foreign partners because its domestic industry remained unable to do everything by itself.

The defence firm chief added he also didn’t consider the Chinese aircraft industry a competitive threat. When I asked about China’s newly unveiled ‘5th-generation fighter,’ he responded that the Chinese have a long way to go before they will produce a ‘genuine’ 5th-generation plane equivalent to the Russian T-50. He added that although some of the subsystems of China’s J-20 might be considered 5th-generation, the Chinese still need much more time to combine all these subsystems effectively and produce a genuine state-of-the-art aircraft.

So what are the Russians worried about? Defence leaders seemed more focused on Central Asia, believing that instability in there will increase from the contagion effects of the social, economic and political disturbances in North Africa and from the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan in the coming years. Those I heard from are especially worried about renewed civil strife in Kyrgyzstan, the rise of Islamist militarism in Tajikistan, and the failure of the United States and NATO to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan before they withdraw their combat troops. Russian policymakers fear that complications resulting from these changes will increase the threat of terrorism and narcotics trafficking to Russia, as well as challenge Russian economic interests there, such as access and control over Central Asian oil and natural gas supplies.

To address the very real fears of chaos in Central Asia, Russia is relying heavily on the seven-member Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). One senior general responsible for Russian military planning and operations argued that member states, which include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, had overcome many of the deficiencies that he confirmed the CSTO experienced last summer, when it was paralyzed during the Kyrgyzstan crisis. He said that the CSTO now has the military capacity, the operational plans and the legal foundation to undertake rapid interventions in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, or even possibly Afghanistan under the rubric of anti-terrorism, peacekeeping, or other justifications.

He said he also felt the military leaders of the CSTO members had achieved a genuine meeting of minds about the organization. Kazakhstan, for example, had become an especially close partner of Russia in the building of a new and more effective CSTO, and the general said he is looking forward to the major exercise the CSTO plans to hold this summer and early autumn to confirm this progress. He and other Russians urged NATO to develop relations directly with the CSTO given the likelihood that it will play a greater role in Central Asia when Western troops leave Afghanistan.
The Diplomat